How a patent helped the pitch for a million dollar research start-up

Dr Sheila Donnelly
Published: 
4 November 2016

When Dr Sheila Donnelly and her team at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) created a novel technology with commercial potential, they worked with the Technology Transfer Office to secure patent protection, and then used their IP position to gain a 1.25 million dollar investment.

The investment, from Australia’s Medical Research Commercialisation Fund (MRCF), meant that Sheila and her team were able to form start-up, Helmedix. Helmedix, named from medicines derived from Helminth parasites, is developing new therapies for autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, colitis, psoriasis and multiple sclerosis.

These therapies are all based on the technology first developed by Sheila and her team. Their research was concentrated on how worm parasites change their host immune response and if this process could be used as a therapeutic for autoimmune disease. This approach had never previously been explored but Sheila and her team were confident it could lead to something bigger, something tangible, and importantly, something commercial, so they approached the Technology Transfer Office at UTS very early on.

‘When we met with the commercialisation officer, we only had some preliminary data, only one graph and one sequence. We didn’t have a final draft of a paper, and we certainly didn’t have the idea fleshed out, but we had a notion of what it might lead to’, explained Sheila, ‘but because it was so early into the research project, we were able to keep working while the Tech Transfer Office worked with the patent attorneys to develop the patent application’.

The ability to continue researching at the same time the paperwork was being prepared meant the team weren't delayed by the patent application process, ‘We applied for a Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) in 2011 and a few months after that we published our paper. We weren't delayed in anyway by the patent application process because we disclosed our idea at an early stage’.

Sheila believes this is an important point for researchers who are concerned about the potential impact commercialisation has on their ability to publish, ‘If you think you may have the ability to commercialise your findings, you need to address that early on, that way you don’t delay your ability to publish. No matter how little data you think you have, the tech transfer office can assess the commercial possibilities; they do not need a fully developed research project. It is important that you communicate with them regularly’

Once the team had their patent filed with IP Australia they had to think about how they were going to execute their commercialisation plan, which Sheila believes is the most challenging part for academics, ‘execution for research academics is the real difficulty. Making that jump from the research lab and innovation to product is where we need collaboration with commercial partners’.

Finding these partners meant that Sheila and her team had to spend two years pitching, ‘We did hundreds of pitches, we pitched to venture capitalists, to small companies, to funding agencies, and eventually in 2013 the MRCF invested in our company and Helmedix was born’.

Sheila believes having IP protection was a critical factor to securing funding for their start-up. ‘We unashamedly advertised our IP position. We really used it to leverage our position. Certainly the feedback we got from a lot of the people we pitched to was that the IP position was quite important. It gave us more strength in the power of our pitches.’

Since receiving funding from MRCF, Helmedix has been able to progress the pre-clinical development of the immune modulating peptides. The plan moving forward is to seek further investment or industry partnerships, and eventually take the technology through clinical development as a treatment for autoimmune disease.

Sheila’s commercialisation journey has taken many years of research, pitching and collaborating, and has been full of challenges and rewards. She urges researchers thinking about commercialisation to consider their IP.

‘I would encourage all research academics to consider their commercialisation options and IP. Having IP protection does create impact, there’s no doubt about it. It almost gives a stamp of approval to your idea and illustrates that your research is innovative and potentially translatable; an important addition to your track record.’